US Policy on North Korea: Prospects for Denuclearisation and Human Rights

The Korean Peninsula is of geostrategic importance to the United States (US) due to its proximity to US regional allies and the continued security threat from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) since the 1950 Korean War.

The DPRK is plagued by humanitarian crises, including famine, human rights abuses, and natural disasters, whilst having continued to divert resources towards developing and modernising a nuclear weapons program. Given the current stalemate in denuclearising the Korean Peninsula and the worsening human rights situation, there is much debate on how best to diplomatically engage North Korea.


Since the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which brokered a ceasefire and demilitarised zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea, Pyongyang has perceived America’s military and nuclear alliance with Japan and South Korea as a threat to its regime survival. North Korea’s unique socialist-inspired and nationalist ideology, Juche, has enabled the Kim dynasty to bolster a domestic and international narrative of self-reliance, independence and isolationism, both to legitimise its nuclear arsenal for regime survival, and to bulwark against US power. Current leader Kim Jong-un has gone so far as to characterise North Korea as a “nuclear state and unchallengeable military power” and it is believed that North Korea possesses between 30 and 60 nuclear weapons, with enough fissile material to produce 7 additional warheads per year. Despite diplomatic engagement, North Korea has consistently condemned US ‘hostile policy’, has shirked its commitments to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) by withdrawing in 2003, and has conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017.

Alongside this, the Chairman of the UN’s 2014 Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on North Korea’s human rights record characterised it as “without parallel in the contemporary world”, detailing substantial cases of human rights violations, including unlawful killings, political prisons and labour camps, torture, and restrictions on movement. Inherited from the time of Kim Il-Sung, the Songbun system is based on a hierarchy of loyalty to the regime whereby access to food, healthcare, housing, employment, and education is severely strained, and it is estimated that 200,000 ‘enemies of the state’ are imprisoned. One report highlights that following the onset of the famine in the 1990s, anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 North Korean refugees fled to China, and many remain in China while others continue to flee the North.

Past Policy Approaches

In the past, diplomatic efforts with North Korea have largely treated human rights issues and its nuclear programme separately. Previously, an assertive multilateral pursuit of ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation’ (CVID) with an interim ‘nuclear freeze’ was negotiated during the Six-Party talks, which involved the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Through these negotiations, North Korea agreed to disable parts of its nuclear complex in exchange for food aid and energy; however, these efforts did not address underlying tensions and hostility in US-North Korean relations. In 2018-19, the Trump Administration again attempted to negotiation a ‘grand bargain’ agreement, whereby North Korea would relinquish its nuclear weapons in exchange for some economic sanctions relief.

While multilateral, bottom-up negotiations reaffirm US credibility and influence by leading through the rule of (international) law and “defending against authoritarianism”, this approach has largely ignored Pyongyang’s notorious human rights abuses. In fact, compared to nuclear negotiations, efforts to address North Korea’s human rights issues have been sparse. Some have even argued that providing aid to the regime through nuclear negotiations further helps secure a regime committing such abuses and undermines international law and the four human rights treaties North Korea has signed. Although there have been many proposed approaches for how the US might work to address human rights issues, they have largely been ignored in multilateral diplomacy.

While some have argued that combining human rights with denuclearisation in the talks with Pyongyang politicises human rights and risks complicating the agenda, others argue that combining critical issues together ensures more effective pressure and successful commitment. It is arguable that assertive human rights diplomacy would eclipse the ‘nuclear’ issue, which could embolden Pyongyang’s nuclear acquisition and signal a tacit acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-weapon-state. This would harm the nonproliferation regime, increasing regional insecurity, and would be highly contested in the US Congress. Further, while providing crucial humanitarian and food aid yields short-term benefits, the human rights framework would have to be strong enough to weather longer-term challenges such as accountability, transparency, and commitment given Pyongyang’s history of accommodating concessions to gain immediate aid. Yet, balancing both human rights and nuclear issues will be important if security concerns vis-a-vis North Korea are to be addressed and the country is to be integrated into the international community. Placing an equal emphasis on human rights protection and denuclearisation endorses the regionally desired goal of long-lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and commits to a multilateral solution.

Prioritising Peace

A multilateral peace regime comprised of the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia should be considered. Not only is a peace regime aligned with President Biden’s ‘principled diplomacy’, but it also reiterates the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between the two Korea’s, and the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore Summit commitment to lasting regional peace, supported by regional allies. The regime should focus on sustaining diplomatic pressure on three channels:

Securing an ‘end of war’ declaration

An ‘end of war declaration’ would function as a security guarantee between the state parties. This would immediately increase regional stability and deescalate the risk of conventional and nuclear conflict by demonstrating a commitment to regional peace and lack of intent to pursue military conflict.

Improving US-DPRK relations on human rights and nuclear issues by establishing liaison offices and working groups in the US and North Korea

To tackle both key human rights issues and nuclear disarmament, the establishment of liaison offices and working groups in the US and North Korea should be prioritised. Increased communication between the US and North Korea would reduce Pyongyang’s insecurity perceptions by improving general relations, transparency, and understanding between the countries. Improved communication would also allow for the identification of any low-hanging fruit in areas that would contribute to improving the human rights situation in North Korea, such as women’s rights.

Negotiating an interim ‘nuclear freeze’ deal for the North’s nuclear complexes

Whilst it is recognised that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons under one agreement, a commitment to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula should remain as the end goal. Instead, efforts should be taken to gradually reduce its nuclear programme. A ‘nuclear freeze’ would place limitations on the North’s nuclear programme, restricting Pyongyang’s ability to continue to develop nuclear weapons.

It is advisable that, whilst the diplomatic engagement begins, US-South Korea military relations are maintained. Altering and reducing the US military presence on the Korean Peninsula may be negotiated in the longer term and in the meantime, security assurances may be given. This is because while nuclear assurances and a ‘nuclear freeze’ may be declared as the North gradually scales back its nuclear stockpile, the risk of shirking or conflict, and the proximity of Japan and South Korea to the North pose a challenge to regional stability and the success of the peace regime.

Given the strong human rights and rule of law motivations of the Biden Administration, pursuing a multilateral peace regime is ultimately the best strategy in confronting North Korea’s human rights violations and capping its nuclear capabilities, with the regionally endorsed end goal of denuclearisation. As with previous diplomatic measures, the success of progression is subject to compliance from all state parties, particularly North Korea.

Nathalie Balabhadra is a postgraduate student at Columbia University (MA Global Thought) with a keen interest in human security, women’s rights, and nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.


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